The first morning's route takes us through the Champagne region. Miles and miles - or kilometres and kilometres - of vineyards stretching into the distance; undulating countryside; little D roads undulating lazily through it with only an occasional car or tractor, easily overtaken with a roar and swoosh on the long straights. The pleasant warmth that means you're somewhere foreign. Even the faintly agricultural smell and the frequency with which insects splatter themselves against the visor are so inextricably bound with the pleasure of France and French roads that I welcome them as old friends.
We stop for coffee in one of the villages, forgetting to specify au lait so we get tiny cups of bitter blackness, and lunch in St-Dizier off omelettes, croques monsieur (messieurs?) and chips under a striped awning by a statue commemorating the Siege of 1544. We park on the pavement. I almost get wiped out by looking the wrong way for oncoming traffic as I cross a dual carriageway. France!
In the late afternoon the landscape changes as we approach Germany. The climbs are steeper, the bends are sharper, dark pine forests rear up beside the road and block out the sky. As we pull away from a set of traffic lights, it starts to rain and I realise I'm rubbish.
Everyone else sweeps around the corners with joy and grace while I creep along, so rigid with The Fear that I'm making it much harder for myself. I know what to do - position myself for vision, brake well before the corner then smoothly round with the engine just pulling and my eyes on the vanishing point - but I can't stand not knowing what might be round that bend: an unexpected tightening, a speeding car, a patch of gravel. John successfully overtakes a timber lorry on a downhill and stays out on the wrong side of the road to indicate that there's room enough for me to follow, but The Fear has hold of me and I can't, I can't, because I'm too rubbish.
At least I'm a competent urban rider thanks to the commuter miles I rack up, and I need to be as we enter St Dié. The persistent drizzle turns to heavy drops like being pelted with tiny stones, and all the traffic is a shock after the quiet hills. We find our hotel and we're cheered to discover it has that rarity on the Continent, baths. Roger and Roy are less cheered to discover they have been given a double room rather than a twin - this will be a recurring theme of the holiday, to much hilarity all round - but soon we are all sorted out and scrubbed and ready for dinner.
I'm still brooding about my inadequate cornering performance and rather dreading the many mountains to come. Walking beside the illuminated river in the post-rain evening is pleasant, though, and when a ferretlike critter darts out of a nearby garden, across the road and down the riverbank I'm glad to be abroad after all.
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